Blackhawks finally run out of gas in Game 7

2015-11-07 13.59.52It didn’t end the way the Blackhawks or any of us fans had hoped. Despite an incredible comeback to tie this first round series at three games apiece, the Hawks ran out of gas in Game 7 and lost to the Blues by a final score of 3-2. This year’s better team won, whether we want to accept that or not.

As much as it pains me to admit it, St. Louis turned out to be the deeper and better team in their opening round series against the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Blackhawks had the upper-hand in elite talent, but it was the depth-talent of the Blues that ultimately won them the series, and for just the second time since 2002, St. Louis will play in the second round of the playoffs.

Looking back on this incredible series that really could have gone either way, it was the Blackhawks’ lack of depth on the blue line that one could argue was the major difference between these two evenly matched teams. Joel Quenneville was forced to rely on rookies Trevor van Riemsdyk, Erik Gustafsson, and Viktor Svedberg throughout the series, which at times went just as poorly as you could imagine. And near the end of the series, David Rundblad was thrown into the fire. Here’s a guy that started the year with the Hawks, was allowed to go play in Europe due to his ineffectiveness in North American hockey, and was then brought back to the Blackhawks and relied upon to perform well in the most important games of the season. Needless to say, the Hawks badly needed another top four defenseman in this series, and they didn’t have one.

On top of that, their best players weren’t always their best players. Jonathan Toews was held off the scoresheet in all seven games, his first postseason in which he did not score. Patrick Kane only registered one goal (granted, it was a double overtime winner). Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were beaten more often than usual and turned the puck over too many times, and Corey Crawford had a few moments of mediocrity.

All of that, coupled with the team’s lack of defensive depth, was the right recipe for early elimination. Yet they still almost won out of sheer willpower.

No team in the NHL has played more playoff games since the 2009 postseason than the Blackhawks. Couple that with the fact that the Hawks are loaded with Olympians who have played in multiple Olympic games, and it’s fair to argue that these guys may be exhausted. They looked like it at times against the Blues. And in reality, this first round exit may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

For the first time since 2012, the Blackhawks will have a long summer by their standards. They will finally have time to rest and recover prior to next season. Also, losing this early should only ignite a fire within that locker room. For a team that may be the most competitive in the league, a first round exit like this should only motivate them more to reach their ultimate goal in the coming seasons.

Looking ahead, this should be a very interesting summer for the Hawks. They will once again be tight against the salary cap while trying to find a way to re-sign big pieces. Andrew Shaw, for instance, will be a restricted free agent this summer and will no doubt receive interest from multiple teams around the league. The Hawks will have to either find a way to pay him, or Shaw will be wearing different colors next season. They’ll also have to fill the spots currently occupied by Ladd, Rozsival, Weise, Fleischmann, and Panik. Panik, however, is the best bet of that bunch to return next year.

Then you have the Bryan Bickell situation. Bickell is still owed $4 million for one more year, which is a major killer in terms of the Hawks’ cap space. Stan Bowman worked really hard last summer and this season to trade Bickell and his contract, but there were no takers. Bowman will likely be tasked with the same challenge this summer, and whether or not he can execute it could play a huge role in the make-up of next season’s Blackhawks.

This first round exit hurts, a lot, but it’s not the end of the world. As maddening as it is to watch the Blues eliminate the Hawks, it’s important to look at the big picture.

Three times since 2010 we have watched massive parades fill the streets of Chicago thanks to the Blackhawks. They were one goal away from playing in three straight Stanley Cup Finals when they lost in overtime of Game 7 to the Kings in 2014. Despite some inevitable roster turnover again this summer, we are still living in the Golden Era of Blackhawks hockey. The fact that expectations in Chicago have become “Stanley Cup or bust” is a good thing, and something that not many teams or cities can compare to.

Dwelling on this loss for a few days, weeks, or even the summer is fine. The Hawks, had they won Game 7, may have gone on to do something special again. Who knows… But don’t get too down on this team. What they’ve done in recent years is nothing short of remarkable, and that cannot be overlooked.

Stan Bowman and the front office will again do what they can to make the Hawks as much of a contender as they can in the coming months. And given the core that is in place with this team, virtually anything is always possible.

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The Blackhawks’ offense must show up in Game 4

2015-11-07 13.59.52After three games of their best of seven first round series with the Blues, the Blackhawks find themselves in a 2-1 hole heading into Game 4 Tuesday night at the United Center. Through the first three games of this series, the Hawks have registered just 5 goals; one of which was an empty netter.

An area in which it looked like the Blackhawks would have the upper hand in this series, offense, has in fact favored the Blues thus far. St. Louis has been the better team in 5-on-5 play, and they lead the Hawks 51.1 to 48.9 in even strength Corsi. The Blackhawks did generate 46 shots in Game 3, 24 of which came in the second period, but they could only get just 2 goals out of it.

If the Blackhawks want to get themselves back even in this series and eventually go on to win it, they are going to need pucks to start entering the net behind Brian Elliott.

The Ladd, Toews, and Hossa line has been pretty good up to this point for the Hawks, but they have yet to tally a goal. Andrew Ladd had a great chance in the second period of Game 3, but his shot hit both posts before exiting the crease. Then you have the second line of Panarin, Anisimov and Kane, without question this team’s top line all season long. Only Anisimov has scored while Elliott was in the net, and that goal came in a 4-on-4 situation. Kane is still looking for his first goal. Between the six forwards on the Hawks’ bottom two lines, Andrew Shaw is the only one with a goal, and that came via a powerplay.

In total, the Blackhawks have ONE even strength, 5-on-5 goal through the first three games (Keith’s goal in the final seconds of the second period of Game 2). That just won’t be enough moving forward.

It is imperative that the Blackhawks’ top players show up in this series and begin making a difference. If they don’t, then it will be St. Louis moving on to the second round.

Here’s what needs to happen for the Hawks to start scoring and for their best players to actually be their best players:

  • Sustained offensive zone time. Aside from period two of Game 3, the Blackhawks have had a real tough time getting much set-up in their offensive zone. They’ve had some good shifts here and there, but nothing consistent. This needs to change. I know the Blues are one of the better defensive teams in hockey, but the Hawks simply have to find a way to put sustained offensive pressure on them. Rather than have one guy carry the puck into the o-zone time and time again, only to run into a wall of St. Louis defenders, the Hawks need multiple players entering the zone together to space out the Blues’ defense. With just the puck-carrier entering the zone, that allows the Blues to zero in on him and force him off the puck without being able to make a play. If you’ve got one or two other players entering the zone with the puck-carrier, you then don’t allow the Blues to hone in on the puck. They then have to stay spaced and account for the other players entering the zone. This may open up the opportunity to get a good cycle going and generate consistent and sustainable offensive zone time.
  • Depth. Unlike last year during the postseason, the Blackhawks are not getting much from their third and fourth lines. Granted we’re only three games into the playoffs, but this is still an issue. You may be able to win a series over a weaker team with only two lines contributing, but that won’t work against someone like St. Louis. The third line with Teravainen at center has got to get going. Brandon Mashinter, who started Game 1 on this line, is nothing but an anchor weighing down any line he’s on. He is one of the worst options you can have when trying to generate more puck possession. He was replaced by Richard Panik the last two games, while Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise have occupied the other wing. If the Hawks are to win this series, not only will they need some of their top forwards to start scoring, but this line will need to contribute offensively. They are not your typical checking third line, and instead are more of a skilled third line that if effective on offense can be a difference maker in a series.
  • Solve Elliott. This one kind of goes hand-in-hand with generating more offense and goals, but the Hawks have to figure out a way to beat Brian Elliott. You could say that he single-handedly won the Blues Game 3 by only allowing 2 goals on 46 shots against. And truthfully, this isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. It has not been uncommon for the Hawks to be searching for answers against the opposing goalie through the first three games of a series. If history tells us anything, it’s that this is a team that seems to figure it out in Games 4-7, making their opponent’s goalie(s) look bad in the process. One way to potentially beat Elliott is by moving the puck laterally in the offensive zone. Create one-timers. Get Elliott moving side-to-side. He’s not the quickest in that regard and can be beaten in this fashion. In order to do this, look no further than my first point: create sustained offensive zone time.
  • Crawford. Corey Crawford has been phenomenal in this series. He has yet to allow a soft goal, and has come up with some massive saves at crucial times. This needs to continue. The Blues will be going for the kill in Game 4, so Crawford and the Hawks should expect an attempted offensive onslaught right from the start. Crow will have to stand tall and make all of the necessary saves, as well as some highlight reel saves.

The Blackhawks do not want to go down 3-1 against this Blues team. Getting a win in Game 4 to even things up would be huge. To do that, it would be wise of the Blackhawks to try and execute the above points.

As I briefly touched on, the Blackhawks are historically a much better team in Games 4-7. Since 2010, their record in those games is 43-14, and they have come back to win the series 9 times after trailing in it 2-1. Needless to say, this is not an unfamiliar position for them to be in.

If the Hawks are still having trouble generating offense at the halfway point of Tuesday night’s Game 4, look for Joel Quenneville to start tinkering with the lines. In all honesty, it was a bit surprising that he didn’t do so more aggressively in the third period of Game 3.

I’ll say it right now: If the Hawks win Game 4, they will win this series.

Blackhawks take crucial Game 4

stanley_cupgm4It was a must-win game for the Blackhawks, and they stepped up to the challenge and won Game 4 by a final of 6-5 in overtime against the Bruins. For me at least, that was about as uncomfortable as I have felt while watching the Blackhawks play this year. It felt like no lead was safe, and in fact that’s just how it was. Every time the Blackhawks scored, the Bruins had an answer. Twice the Hawks had 2-goal leads of 3-1 and 4-2, but they couldn’t hang on to either of them. I feel like if they would have played 5 more minutes of overtime after Seabrook scored, the Bruins would have tied the game. That’s just the way things were going.

Many people were saying that the Blackhawks wouldn’t win this series unless Jonathan Jonathan Toews, Patrick KaneToews found the back of the net. Well, he scored his second goal of the postseason in Game 4 and played one of his best games yet during these playoffs. Patrick Kane, who had been held scoreless since Game 5 against L.A., also scored in Game 4. I don’t think it is any coincidence that Kane and Toews both scored after being reunited on the top line. Those two simply have a chemistry between them that is at times unparalleled by any other duo in the league.

As for the lines last night as a whole, I think it’s safe to say that Quenneville will be sticking with them from here on out. The Blackhawks scored 6 goals last night, which is impressive, but they did it against arguably the league’s best defensive team, which is even more impressive. At the same time, however, the Bruins did score 5 goals against the Blackhawks, who are not a bad defensive team in any way, shape, or form.

Corey Crawford is being blasted today by many people from sports radio show hosts, to TV analysts, to NHL writers. Some people, and they are ignorant people, are even suggesting that Joel Quenneville should bench Crawford for Game 5 in place of Ray 170887798_slideEmery. I love how so many people are over-reactionary. Corey Crawford had a bad game. He’s not perfect. In fact, he’s probably the main reason as to why the Blackhawks are this far into the playoffs. Name one other game this postseason in which you can confidently say Crawford played bad. Name one Blackhawks’ loss this postseason that you can blame on Crawford. My guess is you can’t. The guy had a bad game. That stuff happens. And you know what? The Blackhawks still won Game 4. It’s not like he gave up 5 goals and the Hawks lost 5-1. If you are going to blast Crawford, then you should blast Tuukka Rask as well.

All anyone has been talking about since Game 2 of this series ended is how Tuukka Rask is the hands down Conn Smythe winner if the Bruins win this series. Sure, he’s played good, but he hasn’t done anything that we’ve never seen before. Part of the reason why his numbers were good through the first 3 games of this series is because the Blackhawks were terrible offensively in games 2 and 3. Rask gave up 6 goals in Game 4 and the Bruins lost the game (on home ice). Why isn’t that getting more attention than it is?

Moving forward, the Blackhawks do need to be a lot better defensively. There were too many instances in Game 4 where they didn’t clear the puck when they should have, when they didn’t have anyone boxing out in front of Crawford, and when they allowed Boston’s point-men to have open looks at the net (for example, Johnny Boychuk’s goal). Crawford did give up a few bad goals, there’s no denying that, but the Hawks’ defense also hung him out to dry on a couple of those.

One thing that has me a little worried right now is the Blackhawks’ penalty kill. This was possibly their biggest strength during the regular season and first 3 rounds of the playoffs, but now it looks like a weakness. The Bruins already have 4 power play goals through the first 4 games of this series, and the Blackhawks don’t seem to have an answer. While I’d like to think that the PK will turn itself around and that the Bruins’ season-long bad PP will return, part of me thinks that the Bruins found a weakness in the Hawks’ penalty kill and that they’re exploiting it. One solution for the Blackhawks is to stop taking penalties.

Marcus+Kruger+Boston+Bruins+v+Chicago+Blackhawks+RhnZy62kcoUlAside from the penalty kill, I am pretty confident looking ahead to Game 5 back in Chicago. This is now a best of 3 series with 2 games being at the United Center where the Hawks have played well all year. In Game 4, the Blackhawks were the clear-cut better team. The only reason that game was close was because A) Crawford had an off night, and B) the Bruins had some lucky bounces. You could also say that the Blackhawks played their worst defensive game of the postseason, and I’d bet they won’t do that again. The Blackhawks controlled much of the puck possession and dominated in shots-on-goal. They played their game instead of letting Boston play their own game. They used their speed to a major advantage, and they’ll need to keep doing so. In Game 5, I hope to see the Blackhawks come out again and play like it’s another Game 7. They need to give everything they’ve got until there is no more hockey left to play.

Like I said before, I am pretty confident right now about the Blackhawks’ chances in this series. They’ve got 2 of the remaining 3 games on their home ice, and they have proven that they can beat Boston. They got their worst defensive effort out of the way, and yet they still won that game. If the Hawks really want to win the Cup, then they need to continue playing like it. When they do that, they are almost unbeatable.